The MLS conference finals take place live on Sky Sports this week, but who has the advantage in the ties to make it to the MLS Cup final? We take a look…
After nine months, we are nearly at the end of the 2017 MLS season, and there are just four teams left who could be crowned league champions on December 9.
Ahead of the second-leg ties of the Western and Eastern conference finals, we take a look at the state of play for each tie and who could make the final in a few weeks time.
Toronto FC v Columbus Crew (0-0 on agg) – Thursday November 30, live on Sky Sports Football from 12.35am
Last year’s MLS Cup runners up Toronto are arguably the favourites in this one, with a dull 0-0 draw in the first leg – where the Canadian side failed to produce a shot on target and Columbus only managed three – seeing this tie in the balance.
Toronto set an MLS record for most points in a single regular season (69), meaning they have already picked up the Supporters Shield this year, while Crew finished in fifth spot in the Eastern conference table.
But they do have experience of the big stage, winning the MLS Cup in 2008 and were runners up to Portland Timbers in 2015, and with the away-goals rule in effect during the conference finals, they know that any goal scored at BMO Field will pile the pressure on their opponents.
Toronto FC vs Columbus
November 30, 2017, 12:35am
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“If we score in Toronto, the complexion of the whole series is going to change,” Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter told mlssoccer.com. “That’s going to be our focus.”
“I think they [Toronto] have had a pretty big target on their backs for a while now. New York [Red Bulls] wanted to do it; we want to do it. But there’s a huge difference between wanting to do it and actually do it.
“They’re standing in our way of hosting MLS Cup. We want to host MLS Cup. We want to win MLS Cup. We have to go through Toronto to do it.”
Two of Toronto’s most important players will return to action on Thursday – strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore – after both were suspended for the first leg, which goes some way to explaining their lack of bite in front of goal.
“I think we’re an entirely different team with them on the field,” Toronto head coach Greg Vanney told mlssoccer.com.
“[They affect] our ability to connect off the front line, our ability to have more playmakers, goal-scorers, difference-makers – they add something entirely different. Also, it will add something different for [Columbus], in terms of what they have to deal with.”
Columbus Crew opened a three-goal advantage in the MLS play-offs as they defeated New York City 4-1 in the first leg of their semi-final
Columbus face the opposite situation at BMO Field, with key midfielder Artur suspended for the trip to Canada. Mohammed Abu is expected to come in to replace him, having already featured against New York City FC in the play-off semi-finals.
Other players to keep your eye on for Crew are Federico Higuain – brother of Juventus striker, Gonzalo – and Ola Kamara, who has scored 18 goals in 34 games this season, including the opening goal of a 4-1 victory against NYCFC in the first leg of the semi-finals.
Seattle Sounders v Houston Dynamo (2-0 on agg) – Friday December 1, live on Sky Sports Football from 3.35am
Houston have it all to do at CenturyLink Field, with Seattle already 2-0 ahead on aggregate in the Western conference play-off final and having an away goals advantage, as this week’s hosts look to defend their 2016 MLS Cup title.
Watch highlights from both first leg ties of the MLS conference play-off finals
Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson were on the scoresheet in the first leg, while Houston had to play over an hour with ten men after Jalil Anibaba was sent off in the 28th minute. The aggregate score could have been greater, but Dynamo stopper Joe Willis saved Nico Lodeiro’s resulting penalty.
While Houston have a mountain to climb, head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who has done a superb job in turning the Dynamo around after a dismal 2016 season, says that his side will be going to Seattle with a gung-ho attitude.
“We can’t deny that this season has been positive in all aspects for us. After not being in the playoffs to be going up against the Seattle Sounders, the defending MLS Cup champions, is a big accomplishment,” he told mlssoccer.com.
Seattle vs Houston
December 1, 2017, 3:40am
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“And to go to Seattle, with a good mentality, and with the possibility to play a good game and generate [chances] and make things difficult. And why not? If we can get a result and qualify [for MLS Cup], I think that would be a great merit to close out the year.”
But the Sounders are chasing their own history, aiming to become the fourth side in the league’s history to win back-to-back MLS Cup titles should they make the December final.
“The message after the game [the first leg] was, ‘You cannot fall asleep for any moment in time,'” Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer also told mlssoccer.com.
“We play to our strengths and try to dictate tempo to other teams…We will approach [the second leg in Seattle] the same way. [The Dynamo] are too dangerous to sit back and let them dictate tempo on our home field. That would be a mistake.”
You might recognise Seattle’s top scorer this season – Clint Dempsey. The former Fulham and Spurs forward is still doing the business for the Washington-based club, netting 14 goals in 30 games this season.
Houston’s top scorer, Erick Torres, has also scored 14 times so far and has previous against the Sounders, scoring the opening goal of a 2-1 home victory on the opening weekend of the season.
There is also still a question mark over Seattle No 1 Stefan Frei, who missed the first leg in Texas with a hamstring injury, and remains a doubt for the second tie. Tyler Miller deputised in his absence, and did keep a clean sheet last time out, although he largely went untested by Dynamo.
Both sides will also have key suspensions to deal with. Seattle will be without centre-back Roman Torres, while Houston will have Anibaba and Alberth Elis, with the latter contributing ten goals and four assists this season.
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